A Stroke of Fever
He arrived at the peak of wet season, when rain slicked the treetops and swept away the red earth roads. Black Eye claimed she’d seen him pull up to the bungalow on the back of a mud-splattered motorbike, dressed in loose linens and sandals, clutching only a small carpetbag.
We didn’t believe her, of course. Who ever heard of a white man going out in public dressed like a local, driving his own vehicle? Not to mention that, according to word that had spread a few weeks earlier, he was a respected doctor who’d worked at a big hospital in Saigon. We assumed he’d come out to the countryside for an authentic jungle experience, like the English couple who’d occupied the bungalow before him—never mind the fact that we didn’t live in the jungle, just next to it—or else for some obscure medical research mission.
“You’re full of shit, Black Eye,” said Stick. In those days we knew little of foreigners, only that when the rare Saigon expat passed through the village, they were driven around in shiny automobiles and uniformly insisted on stiff shirts and trousers that had them perspiring rivers in the tropical heat. The English couple had been no different, except they’d stayed for months, hiring six different villagers—including Stick’s aunt—to cook and clean and chauffeur. According to Stick, who, thanks to her aunt, served as our highest authority on the subject of white people, the wife claimed their house was haunted, that howls rang from the bordering jungle at night, that the ghost of a little brown girl with a tiger’s face manifested in her closet, that furthermore at least one of their cunning-eyed servants was stealing from her jewelry box. They’d finally packed up and returned to metropolitan comforts within half a year.
Black Eye, more prone to tears than any country girl ought to be, bit her lip and said nothing.
“Aw, come on,” said Lemon. “She doesn’t mean it. But really—there’s no way some Frenchman would try to look like one of us.”
“I’m not lying,” Black Eye insisted. “Pepper, don’t you believe me?”
I did not, but she looked desperate. I suggested, “Why not go see for ourselves?”
* * *
And so we found ourselves huddling behind a banyan in the greenery bordering the bungalow’s lawn. In the murk of near dusk the jungle buzzed alive, its shadows deepening. It was denser here on the outskirts of town, almost violent in its barely restrained encroachment onto the manicured rectangle of grass; as if at a word it would lurch from where it held; as if it were waiting, salivating, to do just that.
Little orange tealights lined the back windows. Beyond, in the sitting room, a tall figure appeared.
“That’s him,” Black Eye whispered.
As he stepped up to the window, squinting out, we instinctively pressed lower to the ground.
“Oooo,” said Lemon, “are you sure that’s a doctor?” and everyone but Black Eye stifled giggles. It was clear now why she’d appeared so distressed. The warm glow glinted off his sharp cheekbones, limning his light hair gold. He was perhaps in his thirties, and though he was indeed wearing jarringly plain clothes, he gave the solemn impression, backlit in the window, of a royal posing for his portrait. A clay cup nestled in his hands.
Lemon whispered, “What do you think he’s here for?”
“Maybe a scandal at the hospital,” Stick suggested. She raised her brows at Black Eye. “Maybe he was caught with a patient’s wife—”
“Stick, stop it,” I hissed, reaching over to swat at her arm and instead catching a hanging root. There should have been little chance the man would spot a slight movement in the near-dark, but we felt his gaze turn in our direction. We froze.
He took a long, leisurely sip from his cup, eyes fixed on the banyan, before finally turning away. We waited till he was out of sight, then fled.
* * *
Unlike the English couple, the man did not hire anyone to keep the house. In fact, he seemed to be more of the reclusive sort—the only sighting around the village was when he dropped by old Ông Tuán’s supply store to purchase several glass containers and enough produce for a week. He spoke unusually good Vietnamese despite his French accent. Lemon’s father, who took the road that passed by the bungalow every day for his sugarcane and bamboo deliveries, reported no vehicles other than the dirty motorbike on the flagstone driveway.
Nearly everyone lost interest in the foreigner after a couple of weeks. He bothered no one; he brought no contingent of fellow expats or French authorities down upon the village after him. He was a mystery, but not a particularly engaging one. Lemon was certainly interested in his looks but soon became preoccupied again with the far more accessible crew of slick-haired teenage boys who ditched school to run cockfights by the creek, and I got busy with the upcoming oral math exams. He would have passed from both our minds, were it not for Stick and Black Eye.
Stick, to make up for her erroneous initial judgment of the man and to maintain her position as expert on all things foreign, was determined to uncover his backstory. “There’s just no way he came all the way out here to sit in a house all day for no reason,” she insisted. Black Eye, despite her claims of disinterest ever since we’d gone to spy on the bungalow, perked up her ears each time he was mentioned. She had taken to hanging around Ông Tuán’s every Saturday, casually perusing the crates of dragon fruit and sugarcane, and ducking behind the tobacco stand if the foreigner happened to stop by. We teased her about it endlessly.
Still, our parents would have given all of us hidings if we’d interacted with him in any way, so Stick’s endeavor lay dormant for the first month after his arrival. Then Lemon’s father received an unusual request, left by his door on a scrap of paper while he was out on deliveries. Please deliver a kilo of your thickest-cut bamboo to 4 Ma Lật Road by the end of the week. Will pay double if it arrives tomorrow. —Vincent, Thomas
Lemon’s father was nonplussed but perfectly willing to fulfill the order, but he had already committed to driving to another village thirty kilometers away the next day. Lemon was tasked with making the delivery in his place, with strict instructions to simply drop off the bundle, accept the money, and leave: Don’t enter the house, don’t make unnecessary conversation, don’t look him in the eye.
“I’ll come with you,” Stick declared immediately. “You can’t go alone, of course.”
I didn’t trust Stick to refrain from doing something rash, nor Lemon to stop her, so I said, “I’ll come too.”
“Me too, then,” said Black Eye, who’d clearly wanted to go but had hesitated before I joined.
“No, wait, four’s too many,” said Lemon. “Why would my father need four girls to drop off a small package? It would be suspicious.”
Black Eye, near tears again, crossed her arms. “Three is still a lot.”
“Well, I said I’d go first, and it’s Lemon’s dad selling it, and Pepper speaks the best French in case he refuses to speak Viet,” said Stick, in her most cuttingly practical tone that left no space for opposition.
The following day Lemon, Stick, and I stood uncertainly before Mr. Thomas Vincent’s front door, none of us willing to make the first move, our bikes sinking into the mud beyond the paved entrance.
“You knock,” Lemon hissed at Stick. “My hands are full.”
“I—” Stick’s bluster seemed to have deserted her. I stepped up and knocked.
The slap of sandals on tile answered. Thomas Vincent opened the door, looking flustered, peering down at the three barely adolescent girls staring back up at him despite explicit instructions against eye contact. A smoky, sweet smell wafted from somewhere in the house.
Lemon held out the bundle of bamboo. “It’s half a silver, please,” she said, forgetting that he’d promised double.
“Ah—yes.” He dug out a full silver piastre from his pocket and handed it over, taking the bundle. “Thank you.”
Stick blurted, “What’s it for?”
I could have kicked her, but Thomas Vincent replied, with only mild surprise, “My experiments. I was a doctor in Saigon.”
“Was?” she asked.
He frowned. Stories about the French scurried through my mind: how those who owned the rubber plantations beat their workers, how the aristocrats in the city got their household staff jailed on accusations of stealing a bowl of rice. The light patter of rain on flagstone seemed to boom louder, growing incessant and drowning out even my quickening heartbeat. I grabbed Stick’s arm.
“Thank you for your order, Mr. Vincent,” I said quickly, and hauled the others away.
On the way back Lemon turned to us, clearly feeling disappointed with the briefness of the interaction and also a little bad about excluding Black Eye now that it was clear bringing her would’ve been no trouble at all.
“What should we tell her?” she said.
Stick felt no such remorse. “Maybe he gave us a wink,” she said, laughing too loud. “His smile was so heart-stopping. He’s even taller and more charming up close. His—”
“Stop it,” I said. “I wish he’d been more interesting too, but it’ll be just as irritating if you make her really cry.”
Black Eye was waiting anxiously in front of Lemon’s home. “What happened?” she asked.
“Nothing,” snapped Stick.
Annoyed, I said, “What were you expecting? That a Frenchman would invite three random village girls in for afternoon tea? What makes you think he’d just tell the delivery service all his business?”
Black Eye shut up, but Lemon said quietly, “Did you smell it, though?”
“Like the stuff my father uses to preserve seeds, but worse.”
“I did, but what does that have to do with anything? He’s a doctor. Doctors have all sorts of medicines that smell strange.”
“Was a doctor,” Stick corrected.
“He probably just meant that he’s not doing doctor-y things right now. Which should be obvious.”
“But what did he say?” Black Eye persisted, and all three of us shrugged.
* * *
The topic waned over the next few days, because Stick’s aunt, then her mother and two brothers, fell sick. Flu was not uncommon during the increased dampness of the wet season, so no one thought anything of it until their neighbors caught it too, and then the Đinh family across town. Within a week and a half nearly a third of the village was infirm, including Stick and Black Eye. Lemon’s father, who owned the best motorbike around, was dispatched to nearby Làng Đa to retrieve the doctor serving both villages. The doctor shook his head at the outbreak and said he had never seen anything like it.
“A highly unnatural sickness,” he said, “to have spread this fast. And with fever the only symptom, no other physiological effects—not much I can do anyway. Wait it out.”
His comment about the outbreak being unnatural made its way to Stick’s household, where it was revealed that a certain mysterious foreigner had arrived from the city, a former doctor, potentially disgraced, his house smelling like strange chemicals. The revelation flared across the village. There was nothing to be done about it, of course—no one wanted to confront the man and risk bringing down the French authorities on all our heads, especially not over a rumor. But we had all heard too many terrible rumors—and credible news—even in our small village over the past few years, from the few older students lucky enough to be enrolled in French schools and the traders who had business in the city. Stories of how parts of Saigon had devolved into slums while other parts had been raised into grand colonial mansions, how there were now opium dens for the well-to-do and back-alley overdoses for the masses, how the French treated both countryside landowners and the peasants who worked for them, how the colonizers had set up a brutal police force to protect only their own. The whispers, futile as they were, stuck.
Black Eye’s older sister Hà Linh, the only one in their family who’d been spared from the sickness, told us she’d been at Ông Tuán’s store buying lemongrass to boil for a curative tea when Thomas Vincent walked in for his usual order.
“He acted very surprised at how empty the roads were,” she said. “He said hadn’t left his house for over a week.”
By now both Stick and Black Eye had partially recovered. We were all crammed into the room Black Eye shared with her sister, eager for something exciting after nearly two weeks of illness.
“Do you think he was pretending?” asked Stick. Hà Linh shrugged, relishing our attention.
“I couldn’t tell. He looked tired, though, and he smelled strange. Sweet, a little rotten, like when the ochna blossoms die after New Year’s.”
There was a pause, then Lemon whispered, as if her words might otherwise slip through the window, into the still night where any manner of creature could be waiting with ears pricked, “Maybe he caused the sickness.”
“Don’t be silly, Nhi,” said Hà Linh, who refused to call any of us by our nicknames. “How would he possibly do that? And for what gain?”
“Maybe we’re his experiment,” said Black Eye.
I turned to her in disbelief. “I trust Stick to come up with such ridiculous ideas, but you?”
But Stick was shaking her head. “What if she’s right?”
Black Eye and Stick in agreement—it truly was the end of the reality I knew. Yet Lemon’s expression, too, was more anxious than incredulous.
“Pepper, think about all those stories from Stick’s aunty. And you remember the news about how they found a morgue with Vietnamese bodies below a French hospital in Hanoi—”
“They proved it was just part of a bigger morgue with French people too,” I countered.
Black Eye looked at me, and I could see the resolve building. Quiet Black Eye, never wanting to go anywhere without at least one of us, never suggesting any adventures of her own. “We need to go find out for sure,” she said.
* * *
Hà Linh refused to run around with a gaggle of kids on some ill-conceived mission, but agreed to lie if anyone asked where we were. We waited till full dark, when clouds scudded beneath a yellow half-moon, threatening a downpour. We biked down Ma Lật Road as far as the last building, then entered the jungle on foot.
Black Eye balked at the shadows cast by the dense foliage, but set her jaw and kept moving. After her declaration—the first time she had ever consented to do something daring rather than being dragged along, whining—there was no doubt that the mission was a go. Everyone except me seemed convinced that unnatural things were afoot, that even if we found no incriminating evidence of chemical experiments in the bungalow, Thomas Vincent must be up to something worth discovering.
And even I had to admit that, in the grasp of the still, humid night, anything seemed possible. It was a night that felt cracked open, breathless, stripped of boundaries and pumped full of potential. Only a faint film of moonlight guided our path through the untrodden jungle, but a lifetime of clambering through the thick vegetation steadied our feet. Perhaps the English woman had not been mad, touched with jungle fever, after all. Perhaps the amber eyes of tigers, the howls of wild dogs, even the specters between the walls of her house were not simply the figments of a fearful imagination. Our people believed in spirits, some of whom were specific to the earth on which they were created. Perhaps to make this place your home, you had to shoulder the burden of the land itself.
New fungi had sprouted from below the banyan tree, spilling onto the lawn of the bungalow. Orange tealights still lined the windows like soldiers. Of course Thomas Vincent was at home, but the bungalow was large, so we crouched, waiting for him to pass through his sitting room.
An hour passed but he did not. Finally Stick spoke up. “If he’s cooking something up it’d be in the kitchen. My aunt said there was a side entrance for her and the other cook when she worked there.”
We snuck around the perimeter to the left of the house: nothing. Then back around to the right, and there it was, a thin mesh screen door.
Black Eye took a deep breath.
There was still time to give up, to go home and tend to our sick families. The beatings we’d get if we were caught trespassing and hauled to our parents’ doors—and the risk, I realized for the first time, of encountering something that would make a beating seem like a swat on the arm, for a man who was plotting to poison a village was surely capable of imprisoning us, experimenting on us, killing us, and no authorities would come save a bunch of village girls then.
“Wait,” I said—but it was too late. She stepped forward and pushed open the screen door.
It led into a side room, entirely devoid of furniture or decoration. We had never been in such a large house before, but as we crept into the hallway, we passed two other rooms just as empty: parlors, maybe, guest rooms like the ones described in our French storybooks at school. There was no sign of human habitation outside of the sitting room we’d seen from the lawn. The screen door must have served as an entrance for all the servants, cooks and maids alike, since the kitchen was not immediately visible.
Stick sniffed the air. “Do you smell that?” she whispered. Indeed there was a whiff of sweetness, with an undertone of sour smoke. She tiptoed further down the hallway toward the smell, the rest of us following in single file.
The hallway ended at an open doorway, which, as we entered, appeared to be a kitchen. Unlike the other rooms it was dimly lit, scattered with heaps of poppyseed and containers from Ông Tuán’s filled with unidentifiable liquids. A small pot gurgled on the stove. Thick, sweet smoke hung in the air, like the scent we’d noticed from the delivery weeks ago but ten times stronger. A long pipe lay on the counter. I leaned in closer. It looked like it had been fashioned from thick-cut bamboo. Lemon saw it too, and locked eyes with me in recognition.
Something thudded against the interior kitchen door. We jumped, turning to flee back outside.
Thomas Vincent stumbled into the kitchen.
His eyes were unfocused, shot through with red. His handsome face was ragged and more deeply lined than the last time we’d seen him; the stink of him, pungently sweet. He gaped at the four girls frozen in his kitchen. A story sprang to mind: Lemon’s father, ranting to his wife the moment he returned home from a business trip while we eavesdropped the next room over, about the ghastly sights of the new opium dens and drug houses proliferating through Saigon. We recalled his frustration that there was nothing to be done about it, the addicts dying in the dens and on the streets at one end of the chain, the workers collapsing in the poppy fields at the other. The government had capitulated; the opium flow was profitable and snaking its roots through the whole of Indochina. We had not understood much of the words spilling from his lips, but I remembered how he had described the raw wounds of the addicts who’d tried to claw their own skin off, their rotting smell.
Thomas Vincent was not a mad doctor. He was not a deranged scientist genius with plans to experiment on the unwitting people of our village.
It was just a flu, and he was just an addict. Disgust surged in my throat—a repulsion at this smelly man who now seemed small despite his size, that we had once thought him handsome, enigmatic, worthy of mystique. He had not caused our disease, but all that he and his people had brought to us were plagues of a different sort.
He was dazed, though not enough to be unable to recognize that we were locals, little brown girls who had intruded upon his property. His eyes narrowed. He stepped toward us, slurring, “If you tell—”
With a small cry Black Eye grabbed for a flat cutting stone on the counter, streaked with resin from the poppies, and hurled it at his head. She missed, hit his shoulder. It was enough to make him stumble again and sit down, hard, where he remained, eyes squeezed shut in pain.
We darted around his slumped body, back down the hallway, through the screen door, plunging straight into the embrace of the jungle. It smelled impossibly clean, now, the slapping of vines and crunching of branches underfoot a familiar relief. No one spoke. We ran, limbs pumping, though we were certain he could not follow. I was no longer so afraid of the man Thomas Vincent, but the smell of him, a smell that had rattled even Lemon’s steadfast father, I could not rid my nostrils of. The clouds broke just as we reached our bikes.
Black Eye looked up and opened her mouth, drinking in the rain. She looked at the rest of us. We were panting hard, still in shock. She began to laugh.
“I was so jealous,” she gasped, nearly choking. “I was so jealous you’d all gone to see him without me.”
Stick started to laugh too. “He was a doctor,” she said. “I was right about that.”
At this we all cackled. We laughed, and laughed, and the rain kept pouring, and the red earth streaked us, leaving us feeling, finally, clean.